Children Adrift in a Harsh World

JONATHAN POWER

April 02, 1993|By JONATHAN POWER

London. -- In Latin America, Africa and even in parts of Asia families are breaking up. Under the stresses of urban, capitalist life both the old extended family and the more modern nuclear family are falling apart. In their place is the ''spaghetti family'' with loose strands that link parts of the family but never the whole. It is an ominous and dangerous development.

For years as I've traveled from Brazil to Morocco to India I have written occasional columns about street children and child laborers. Recently the U.N. Population Fund was generous enough to finance a study that gave me the time to probe in a way my itinerant visits never allowed. What I learned is that the street child is but the marker-buoy of the wrecked family beneath -- and that the proportions of the tragedy are far greater than I knew.

UNICEF estimates that there may be 100 million street children the world over. The London-based Anti-Slavery Society counts 200 million child laborers around the world.

In Bangkok alone, reports the Thai Center for the Protection of Children's Rights, there are 800,000 girl prostitutes between the ages of 12 and 15. According to a recent Amnesty International study, children, often from the street, are being arbitrarily detained and tortured in 32 countries.

Almost invariably these street children are exploited or abused, economically, physically and often sexually. They clean shoes, sell postcards, flowers or hot peanuts, sing and dance, clean car windows, steal, even offer cheap sex. They are ''little lords of the flies.'' Six years old, nine years old, 14 or 15 at the most, they roam the streets of the more affluent Third World neighborhoods. Others live as bonded laborers, mainly in South Asia, or prostitutes, mainly in Thailand, the Philippines and India.

The underlying cause of the problem is over-rapid urbanization and industrialization -- which suggests that China will soon join .. India and Brazil with millions of its own street children or child prostitutes.

This is not to say that life in the village is a pastoral idyll. On the contrary, village life is often harsh, and many of the elementary facilities of life are non-existent. Child abuse and incest are not unknown, and in the rural areas of India hard-pressed families sell their children into bondage. Nevertheless, for the most part village life in many developing countries is a cooperative endeavor where the whole family works together in the production of food and shelter. Divorce is infrequent, and where it occurs customary practice normally insures that women and children are supported by their kin.

In the city the extended family rarely exists. The nuclear family becomes, if not the norm, at least the ideal. Yet increasingly, as extended-family ties diminish, so do traditional forms of authority that cement marriages and dictate the care of children. Divorce is becoming more common. So are informal unions and the abandonment and destitution of children. Men are increasingly seen as shadowy figures, drifting in and out of the family, avoiding responsibility. The family as we used to know it is ceasing to exist.

The total breaking loose of the child from any parental contact appears to be most pronounced in the machismo culture of Latin America. Male dominance combined with unremitting poverty and loose marital bonds pushes men toward cruelty in the home and infidelity away from it. When liaisons break up men see their children as impediments to a new relationship. Detesting one's step-children is part of the culture of poverty.

Only an inhumane degree of social and economic pressure could have produced 40 million street children in Latin America. No normal mother wants this for her child. Dislocation is caused by the world's most skewed ownership of land and resources, combined with an over-rapid rush to build a modern competitive economy. Urban migration is the last throw of the dice for those reduced to poverty through population pressure and land consolidation. They trade misery without hope for misery with hope.

The scale of the problem is clearly worsening everywhere, but awareness of the depth of the crisis is not widespread. If such a large proportion of the world's future adult population spends childhood in such grim circumstances, the consequences will reach far.

Broken families are not good for the children whose formative and most innocent years are made bleak and wretched. And they are not good for society at large, which, before very long, will have in its midst millions of adults whose lives were disturbed and disrupted at an early age and who feel they owe the world very little. Resentment can be one of the most destructive of social forces.

To watch the breakup of the family and to allow the practice of child labor to grow and develop is irresponsibly short-sighted. It can only bring pain and distress to the people of the 21st century.

Jonathan Power writes a column on the Third World.

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